An orphan G-protein-coupled gustatory receptor mediates detection of the plant poison L-canavanine in fruit flies.
For all animals, the taste sense is crucial to detect and avoid ingesting toxic molecules. Many toxins are synthesized by plants as a defense mechanism against insect predation. One example of such a natural toxic molecule is l-canavanine, a nonprotein amino acid found in the seeds of many legumes. Whether and how insects are informed that some plants contain l-canavanine remains to be elucidated. In insects, the taste sense relies on gustatory receptors forming the gustatory receptor (Gr) family. Gr proteins display highly divergent sequences, suggesting that they could cover the entire range of tastants. However, one cannot exclude the possibility of evolutionarily independent taste receptors. Here, we show that l-canavanine is not only toxic, but is also a repellent for Drosophila. Using a pharmacogenetic approach, we find that flies sense food containing this poison by the DmX receptor. DmXR is an insect orphan G-protein–coupled receptor that has partially diverged in its ligand binding pocket from the metabotropic glutamate receptor family. Blockade of DmXR function with an antagonist lowers the repulsive effect of l-canavanine. In addition, disruption of the DmXR encoding gene, called mangetout (mtt), suppresses the l-canavanine repellent effect. To avoid the ingestion of l-canavanine, DmXR expression is required in bitter-sensitive gustatory receptor neurons, where it triggers the premature retraction of the proboscis, thus leading to the end of food searching. These findings show that the DmX receptor, which does not belong to the Gr family, fulfills a gustatory function necessary to avoid eating a natural toxin.
Plants evolve to fend off the insects that attack them, often by synthesizing compounds toxic to insects. In turn, insects develop strategies to avoid these plants or resist their toxins. Some plant toxins are nonprotein amino acids. For example, seeds from numerous legumes contain high amounts of l-canavanine, a nonprotein amino acid that is structurally related to l-arginine and is highly toxic to most insects. How insects can detect l-canavanine remains to be elucidated. Using pharmacology, genetics, and behavioral approaches, we show that flies sense l-canavanine using the receptor DmX, an orphan G-protein–coupled receptor that has diverged in its ligand binding pocket from metabotropic glutamate receptors. Disruption of the DmXR gene, called mangetout (mtt), suppresses the l-canavanine repellent effect. DmXR is expressed and required in aversive gustatory receptor neurons, where it triggers the premature retraction of the proboscis, thus leading to the end of food searching. Our results indicate a mechanism by which some insects may detect and avoid a plant toxin.